Understanding Anabaptists as the unregistered New Testament Churches of  Reformation Europe  compared to John Calvin


 by Leonard Verduin


“The burning of Servetus – let it be said with utmost clarity – was a deed for which Calvin must be held largely responsible. It was not done in spite of Calvin, as some over-ardent admirers of his are wont to say. He planned it beforehand and maneuvered it from start to finish. It occurred because of him and not in spite of him. After it had taken place Calvin defended it, with every possible and impossible argument. There is every reason to believe that if it had not been for the fact that public opinion was beginning to run against this kind of thing there would have been many more such burnings. The event was the direct result of the sacralism to which Calvin remained committed, a sacralism that he never discarded.

…Calvin never was in the position in which Luther and Zwingli had been, in those early days when the heirs of medieval Restitutionism [Bible Believers] were still looking on hopefully. When Calvin entered upon his life’s task the Reformation had already lost those who had been conditioned by the medieval rebellion against “Christian sacralism.” If it was too radical for Luther to go the way of Restitutionism it was much too radical for Calvin, who came a bit later. If it was too much to expect Luther to pry himself loose from twelve centuries of history, it was much too much for Calvin to come clear of twelve centuries plus a very important decade.

Be that as it may, the Servetus execution took place in a sacralist setting and was the result of sacralist thinking. It was medieval to the core. It reveals a Constantinian determination. HHHHHHere was a man who posed no threat to civil serenity in Geneva – unless of course it is granted that anyone who deviates from the orthodoxy espoused by the State is ipso facto a threat to the civil serenity. (In the sacral pattern heresy is automatically sedition. The Codes of Justinian decreed, “Heresy shall be construed to be an offence against the civil order” (XVI, 5:40). It was this dogmatism that led to the burning of Servetus. It has been said that Calvin sought, late in the trial, to have sentence commuted to the effect that some mode of execution other than by fire [as that was the Roman Catholic Church’s favorite method of extinguishing Bible Believers] would be Servetus’ lot. The reason for this suggestion was that Calvin wanted Servetus eliminated as an offender against the civil order. Death by fire was for offenders in the area of religion. Hence Calvin’s concern in the matter. It was this same sensitivity that made Margaret of Parma, in 1567; specify death by hanging for Guido de Bres. It would look better to have de Bres destroyed as a seditionist than as a heretic; hence death by the noose rather than by the flame. So also in the case of Servetus.) Servetus started no parades, made no speeches, carried no placards, and had no political ambitions. He did have some erratic ideas touching the doctrine of the Trinity; and he entertained some deviating notions concerning  baptism, especially infant baptism. [Christening; Christendom] No doubt there was something of the spiritual iconoclast in him, as there is in all men of genius (Servetus was something of a scientific genius in that he anticipated the idea of the circulatory course of the blood). He was indeed “off the beam” in matters of religious doctrine, but he did not deserve to be arrested or executed – a judgment in which the man of sacralist convictions cannot of course concur. Only in a sacralist climate would men deal in such a way with such a man.

If the very burning of the unhappy Spaniard proves that Calvin’s Geneva was a sacral State and Geneva’s Calvin a sacralist thinker, the literature that sprang up in defense of the awful deed makes it doubly clear.

When the news was out that Servetus had died in the fire, a cry of outrage resounded over most of Europe. It is true that many of the leaders of the Reform applauded the burning  (Melanchton, for example, wrote that “the Church owes and always will owe a debt of gratitude to you for having put the heretic to death”); although it is also true that some, even in Geneva itself, refused to put their names to a document supporting the execution. But there was a chorus of protest that issued at once from those circles that had been deeply influenced by the humanizing tendencies of the times. Contrary to the legend that is kept alive by over-ardent admirers of Calvin, the spirit of the age was already relegating such inhumanity to the limbo of the past. The Renaissance had not been without its fruitage of toleration.”  (Pages 50-53)

[…Calvin put to print] “The principal task of the magistrates is not the business of keeping their subjects in peace as to the body [as the Bible Believers had stated]; rather is it to bring about that God is served and honored in their domains.” [For:] “As the magistrates have the duty of purging the Church of offences by bodily punishments and coercions so do the ministers have the duty of assisting the magistrates by reducing the numbers of those who offend…The hand cannot say to the foot, I have no need of thee.” (In so applying the words of 1 Corinthians 12:21, Calvin reveals his sacralist attitude; for him Church and State are but two aspects of one and the same thing. He will not hear of any separation. And in this Calvin was like all the rest of the Reformers.)

…”From the monism that is reflected here Calvin never escaped. In his way of thinking,

what we now call the Church and what we now call the State are woven into a single fabric; together they constitute a single entity. It was this monism that made it impossible for Calvin to understand what the Stepchildren [Bible Believers] were driving at. It was this monism that found expression in the creeds that grew up under his influence.

One can always learn where a man stands in regard to the tensions that came to expression between the Reformers and their Stepchildren if we ask him what he thinks of the Constantinian change as such. Exponents of  “Christian sacralism” look upon the events of Constantine’s day as the beginning of the golden age; Restitutionists [Bible Believers] look upon them as the end of the golden age.” (Pages 58-59)

…”The civil magistracy is indeed of God (as the Stepchildren said in words of one syllable) but it is not good to say (as Calvin said) that “The civil magistracy is a calling not only holy and legitimate but by far the most sacred and honorable in human life.” Does the burgomaster hold down a position more sacred and honorable “by far” than that of a minister of the Gospel?”  (Page 81)

“Calvin also made himself guilty of this unfairness; in Institutes IV, 1:23, he writes: “Long ago there were two kinds of heretics, Cathars and Donatists [second and third century names for mostly African Bible believers]. These, the former as well as the

latter, were in the same phantasy in which the contemporary dreamers [Bible believing Anabaptists of Calvin’s day] are when they seek for a Church in which there is nothing to censure. They cut loose from Christendom so as not to be soiled by the imperfections of others. And what is the outcome? Our Lord confounded them and their understanding so presumptuous [the Roman army was sent and thought they had totally destroyed them all, but years later small churches began to spring up everywhere throughout the empire believing the same Bible doctrines as the original Cathars and Donatists]. Let this be proof for us all that it is of the devil, who under cover of zeal for perfection inflates us with pride and seduces us by hypocrisy so as to get us to abandon the flock of Christ…. For since there is no forgiveness of sins nor any salvation anywhere else, Acts 4:12  [The reader will observe that Acts 4:12 says nothing about the matter Calvin is treating here; it says that there is no salvation apart from Christ, which is quite a different thing from saying that there is no salvation apart from the everybody-embracing Church].”  (Page 102)